‘When you ask about what’s best about being British I think of all the people
that give up their time to help other people, or to do good things in the
community. That’s what makes me proud of this country.’
Shakespeare, the National Trust, the armed forces and the NHS came out of the polls ok (Parliament and legal system not so much) but they left most people feeling unengaged:
‘I think of being British as being about littler things, more boring I suppose.
Like doing your bit and manners and helping out. The thing about British
people is that we do things for each other, you know? Being British is more
about the way we are than things like Buckingham Palace or Parliament.’
There’s a strong tradition of volunteering in the UK, but it’s understated: few of us would think of doing the old lady next-door’s shopping or picking up a friend’s kids from school as community engagement. Even so, the Demos polls showed that two-thirds of respondents had volunteered in the last 12 months. This is very good news.
And it’s true in the US too: volunteering makes you proud of yourself and others, and pride in your community makes you more likely to volunteer and help others. There’s a positive feedback loop that links individuals, local communities and the whole country. Even the very grand: On September 11th 2008 I was in New York to mark the launch of the new service bill through congress. One after another a show-stopping cast of celebrities stepped forward – Hilary Clinton, Jon Bon Jovi, the presidents of Bank of America, GE, Home Depot and Time Inc; Usher, Former President Bush, UN special envoys, representatives of churches, the Presidents of 9 of the top universities, Arnold Schwarzenegger, top military, senators, congressmen and women, Wendy Kopp, Jeffrey Sachs, Queen Noor of Jordan and Alicia Keys – and they all said the same thing: of all their achievements, nothing made them more proud than their volunteering. There must have been a billion dollars in that room, but there were no press.
What else does the Demos report tell us?
- That four-fifths of those polled agreed with the statement ‘people who are proud of themselves and their community behave in more positive ways.’
- That one crucial reason why volunteering and social action are so important is that they mix people together, so old and young, rich and poor, black, white and Asian work side by side and explode the lurking stereotypes.
- That the minute politicians get involved, ordinary people back away:
‘Sometimes when they [politicians] talk about volunteering and all that, it
sounds like they think they invented it or something. I don’t volunteer
because the Government tells me to, I volunteer because I want to – I enjoy
it and I think it’s important, when you get to my age, to give something back
and to stay in touch with what’s going on.’
‘I’m always a bit dubious when the politicians see something good and then
say ‘that’s what I believe in’ because usually they take that thing and they
So, Mr Cameron, Mr Clegg and and Mr Miliband, listen up:
‘Honestly, I hate the Tories. And I feel angry that they’ve taken something
I’m most proud of in my community – the way we pull together and
organise to keep the street tidy and safe – and they’ve said ‘this is a
Conservative thing’. It’s not a Conservative thing, it’s a British thing.
Well I think it’s good that the Government is supporting volunteering. And I
agree with the Big Society or whatever it’s called. But I don’t like it all being
so political – Tories say it’s good, Labour say it isn’t, and then it becomes
like the Labour Party are saying volunteering isn’t good.’
If you want to strengthen our communities, integrate all those who are part of them and increase pride and positive action, then here’s some advice:
▪ Stop cutting the budgets of the organisations that are doing exactly that.
▪ Start making Citizenship in schools mean something: make community action and community learning a part of the core curriculum of every school and don’t just do it for the little ones. Nobody needs this more than teenagers, and nobody does it better.
▪ Keep politics out of it. This is not about you, it’s about us.